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Net researcher bulks up its library

Ebrary, backed by Adobe Systems Chairman John Warnock, announces partnerships with a trio of major publishers that will expand its virtual bookshelves.

Online research start-up Ebrary, backed by Adobe Systems Chairman John Warnock, on Monday announced partnerships with a trio of major publishers that will expand its virtual library.

As previously reported by CNET, Mountain View, Calif.-based Ebrary has agreed to distribute titles online from academic publisher Greenwood Publishing Group and from John Wiley & Sons, a publisher of scientific, technical and medical books. The company expects to announce a similar agreement with Penguin Putnam in the next few weeks.

Although the market for e-books and other digital publications has been moving at a snail's pace, Ebrary may have an advantage with its focus on "authoritative content." Where consumers are slow to embrace digital versions of novels, analysts have said researchers could benefit from a library of academic information available at the click of a mouse.

Still, analysts say some researchers could be turned off by digital libraries, which have been turning to for-fee plans to support their services. For example, Ebrary's service, dubbed Ebrarian, lets people read articles and books online for free but charges them to copy text or print pages.

"What's holding (the sector) back is the value of content," said Allen Weiner, vice president of Nielsen/NetRatings. "People can get so much content for free on the Web, you really need to have something pretty extraordinary that they need to be able to charge them. That's an issue people have been scratching their heads (about) since the dawn of the Web."

Ebrary's deals come as many online research companies are struggling to stay afloat. Last week, Colorado-based NetLibrary, which licenses digital books to libraries, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off 50 of its 180 employees. Dublin, Ohio-based Online Computer Library Center, a nonprofit group that offers computer-based cataloging and reference services to libraries, said it has made an offer to purchase NetLibrary's assets.

In May, Houston-based Questia Media America also laid off 139 employees from its 283-member staff.

Ebrary, however, says it is confident it can survive until the online publishing sector matures. The company has attracted investors such as Random House Ventures, Pearson and McGraw-Hill.

"We always viewed this as a long-term business," said Christopher Warnock, chief executive of Ebrary and son of Adobe's Warnock. "What we're doing is very difficult. It's nothing like what's really been done before, and we've just been making progress toward where we think the industry is going."